Civil rights activist and organizer Ella Baker (1903–1986) was one of many black women who played crucial roles in the fight for racial justice in America. (© 1976 George Ballis/Take Stock/The Image Works.)

History of Racial Injustice: Black Women in the Movement

In April 1960, civil rights leader Ella Baker urged student activists at Shaw University in North Carolina to form an organization based in participatory democracy and grassroots advocacy. The students created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and in 1961, SNCC Freedom Riders challenged segregated interstate bus travel.

Ella Baker’s activism and mentorship transformed the landscape of the civil rights struggle and exemplified black women’s key role in the movement. For years before Rosa Parks’s famous arrest launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott, black women bore the daily humiliation of segregation, sexual harassment, and violence from bus drivers and police. Though leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became the face of the protest, scholars recognize that the boycott’s success relied upon the black women who initiated and maintained it.

Black women like Constance Baker Motley, Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton Robinson, Marian Wright Edelman, Elaine Jones, Daisy Bates, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Shirley Chisholm were indispensable activists, civil rights lawyers, and political leaders whose efforts advanced the fight for justice and equality.

Before her death in 1986, Ella Baker attributed her strength to her grandmother, who suffered brutal violence for resisting enslavement. Like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and so many other ancestors, black women of the civil rights era were critical in shaping the resistance to racism and sexism in America.